Dreher’s ” Benedict Option”: Part 2—A general critique

Ted Grimsrud

I believe that Rod Dreher, in his book The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation, identifies some genuine problems in American society and proposes a response that in some important ways resonates with biblical faith (see my affirmative first post in this series).  However, that he is partly right actually makes the problems with his proposal more troubling.

The problem: Not enough love

In a nutshell, I would say that the “Benedict Option” ultimately hurts the cause of Christian faith because it does not take Jesus seriously enough. The very core of Jesus’s message points to the path of love—for God, for neighbor, for enemy, for self, and for the rest of creation. Dreher has very little to say in this book about Jesus or about love. It’s fine that this book is about our present day and not a biblical or theological treatise. At the same time, I find it significant that when making his case for what matters most for Christians navigating life “in a post-Christian nation,” Dreher barely references Jesus and the biblical story at all.

It is telling that the one clear call to the path of love does not come until near the end of the book. In the book’s conclusion, Dreher quotes Pastor Greg Thompson, a Presbyterian minister: The Benedict Option ultimately has to be a matter of love. “The moment the Benedict Option becomes about anything other than communion with Christ and dwelling with our neighbors in love, it ceases to be Benedictine” (page 237).

Thompson’s call surely is sincere, and it surely reflects Dreher’s own convictions. However, in the structure of the book, the call to love is clearly on the periphery. Dreher never finds the space to reflect on the meaning of love or to bring Jesus’s life and teaching into the picture. There are other reasons to perceive that love is not the driving force in this project. As I will discuss at more length in my next post, Dreher’s way of focusing on the “problem” of same-sex marriage reflects that marginalization of love.

Ironically, Dreher seems to miss one of the key points in the book that provided him with the image of St. Benedict as standing at the core of his project. In his book After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory, Alasdair MacIntyre seeks to recover the Aristotelian emphasis on the virtues as what is needed to overcome the moral disarray of modern Western culture. But he points out key difference between Aristotle and later Christian appropriation of virtue ethics. Aristotle did not include love (or, an older term, “charity”) as a key virtue. In Aristotle’s moral universe, an emphasis on love is inconceivable. Whereas, for biblical Christianity, “charity is not … just one more virtue to be added to the list. Its inclusion alters the conception of the good for [humankind] in a radical way” (page 174). Continue reading “Dreher’s ” Benedict Option”: Part 2—A general critique”

Dreher’s ” Benedict Option”: Part 1—What Dreher gets right

Ted Grimsrud—May 3, 2017

The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation by journalist, blogger, and religious thinker Rod Dreher, is a book that has received an unusual amount of buzz. Clearly Dreher both has an excellent ability to garner publicity (fueled by his passionate energy) and an ability to speak to profound concerns shared by many people. [For summaries of the book’s key ideas, see Dreher’s post “The Benedict Option” from 2013, an excerpt published in Christianity Today, an interview with Dreher in Religion & Politics, and a recent lengthy profile in The New Yorker; here’s a link to a list of links to articles critiquing and otherwise relating to the Benedict Option.]

This is my first, a descriptive and largely positive essay, of a four-post series engaging Dreher’s book. Post two will offer a general critique. Post three will focus on Dreher’s concerns about same-sex marriage. And post four will offer what I am calling a “Believers’ church alternative.” I am most interested in engaging Dreher on the level of theological ethics, a focus not shared very many of the multitude of responses The Benedict Option has elicted.

What The Benedict Option is about

The Benedict Option is a fascinating book that addresses important issues—and should be of great interest for all who think carefully about how Christian faith navigates life in 21st century North America. Dreher writes well. See for yourself in the excerpt published in Christianity Today mentioned above and at his amazingly prolific blog.

It is important to keep Dreher’s stated agenda and his intended audience in mind in reflecting on what he has to say. He is writing to and about conservative Christians (politically and theologically—Catholics, Eastern Orthodox and Evangelical Protestants)—so progressives of any kind who read him should expect to feel as if they are overhearing a conversation they have not been invited to join. That is, he is not trying to persuade those who don’t fit into the circle of his intended audience, so there are not apologetics or carefully constructed arguments justifying controversial views. He’s self-consciously preaching to the choir. I don’t mean that as a criticism, just as a descriptive comment about his writing strategy. There is a lot to criticize in the book (see my next couple of posts!), but I don’t think it should be criticized for not spending much time presenting a careful argument to “BenOp” skeptics.  That’s not Dreher’s agenda.

Dreher hopes to inspire a joining together of Christians of like mind in resistance to the downward spiral of American culture heading toward a pit of moral relativism, individualism, and hostility toward “orthodox” Christians. The goal is to inspire a counterculture that will have the ability to sustain “traditional” faith in this world. Continue reading “Dreher’s ” Benedict Option”: Part 1—What Dreher gets right”

What kind of Christian politics? Some beginning thoughts

Ted Grimsrud—April 5, 2017

We are living in interesting times. I can remember in the late 1990s having several conversations with progressive friends about the future of Christianity in the United States. Some of my friends thought we were heading into a time of diminishing interest in Christianity and diminishing influence of Christians on the wider society (it is interesting that today, it is more likely to be Christians on the right who worry about Christianity being marginalized in the United States).

Then George Bush got elected and proceeded to help bring the Christian Right closer to the seats of power than ever before. In the years since, for better or worse, Christian politics has remained a significant presence. And then, of course, with the recent election of Donald Trump to the presidency and the strengthening of Republican power in most of the states in our nation, evangelical Christians seemingly heightened their stature and may well now be on the cusp of achieving some of their long sought policy goals—not least the repeal of Roe v. Wade and a return to the criminalization of abortion.

There are other Christians who have strongly opposed the close ties between the Republican Party and American Christianity—including, actually, a growing number of evangelicals. It is even possible to imagine that this moment of seeming unprecedented influence for the Christian Right might in time be seen as a turning point in weakening the broader connection between evangelicals and Republicans. Donald Trump stands for so many values that seem antithetical to traditional evangelical morality that it is difficult to imagine that he will be able to retain the support of all that many.

An interesting book

I just read a book about Christianity and politics that has stimulated more thinking for me. Keith Giles, currently pastor of an outside-the-box congregation in southern California, recently published Jesus Untangled: Crucifying Our Politics to Pledge Allegiance to the Lamb (Quior, 2017). I recommend this book if one if interested in seeing how the evangelical consensus favoring blind support for the Republican agenda is being questioned.

Giles is a birthright evangelical, and this book clearly emerges out his disillusionment with the Christian Right. In a nutshell, he poses “the pursuit of politics” in the contemporary United States as contradictory with a pursuit of the genuine gospel. His agenda is to encourage those who seek to follow Jesus to turn away from a quest for political power. He sees the quest for a “Christian America” as terribly misguided.

Authentic Christianity, as Giles understands it, does indeed hope to contribute to social transformation. But it is not a transformation effected by top-down, state-oriented power but by conversion to Jesus as savior. “Presidents and politicians have much less power than the average Christian when it comes to transformation…. The Gospel of Jesus is still the most effective weapon against evil, corruption, violence, hate, fear, and every other sin known to mankind…. Let everyone know that Jesus is the best Leader anyone could ever have” (p. 185).

There is much that is attractive in Giles’s argument. Certainly, his critique of the Christian Right and its embrace of the American Empire is helpful. I sincerely hope that many evangelical Christians read this book. I can’t help but think it would be better for American Christianity and the country in general if Giles’s position gained many adherents—even if I don’t actually agree completely with his constructive agenda.

Reading Giles stimulated me to think more about the different ways Christians approach politics in the United States. Feeling a bit playful, I decided to create a chart that maps various approaches that Christians have taken in recent years. This is a serious exercise, but not one to be taken too seriously. The “map” is only a quick (and superficial) sketch. But perhaps it has potential to serve as an aid for understanding.

Continue reading “What kind of Christian politics? Some beginning thoughts”

Exorcising the ghosts of fundamentalism

Ted Grimsrud—February 27, 2017

It is common in my circles of friends and acquaintances to encounter people who are former fundamentalist or evangelical Christians and who now distance themselves from that past faith perspective. Often, the rationales for the changes have to do with the Bible. For the sake of opposition to violence, to religious arrogance and exclusivism, to judgmentalism and the like, my friends will say the Bible is so hurtful, so damaging. Maybe they will add that they like Jesus but they see the Old Testament as profoundly problematic—and maybe Paul and Revelation too.

 I am sympathetic with such sentiments. I spent a period of my life in my late teens and early twenties as first a fundamentalist and then evangelical Christian. Starting with my embrace of pacifism at the time of my 22nd birthday, I fairly quickly came to distance myself from those traditions (I tell the story of that evolution here). And I agree that the way the Bible is used by many conservative Christians is problematic and helps underwrite violence and other hurtful attitudes and actions. And I do think it is true that there are materials in the Bible that do lend themselves to hurtful uses.

However, at the same time I love the Bible and most of my theological work consists of engaging the Bible as a positive resource for peace (several of my books focus on the Bible and peace: see, for example, Triumph of the LambGod’s Healing StrategyInstead of Atonement; and Arguing Peace). I often have been told by post-fundamentalist friends (and others) that while they admire my attempts to wring some peace from the Bible, they think I am engaged in spin, at times even in ways that seem dishonest or at least overly and misleadingly optimistic.

I had one such conversation just recently after preaching a sermon. As we talked, I realized that my friend was actually still reading the Bible in a quite conservative way. It’s just that now she disagrees with what she finds there. So I suggested that it would help if she could move past her fundamentalist hermeneutic. She agreed, but also noted that such a move is very difficult. Not so much because she still wants to believe in that approach, but that it is so deeply ingrained in her psyche that she can’t simply by a quick and easy decision get rid of it.

One small aid to help a post-fundamentaist move away from a fundamentalist biblical hermeneutic might be simply to articulate what a post-fundamentalist approach to affirming the Bible as a peace book might look like. Continue reading “Exorcising the ghosts of fundamentalism”

What is justice? Love with claws

[This post is adapted from a sermon preached at Shalom Mennonite Congregation, the second in a series on salvation and human flourishing. Here’s a link to the first in the series, “Are we in debt to God?”]

Ted Grimsrud—February 19, 2017

I want to start this morning with a question. Do  you consider yourself a Johnny Cash fan? I certainly am. Back in the 1960s and 1970s, he was about the only country singer that I would admit listening to. And he was a pretty remarkable performer. He sang songs advocating for Native Americans. He respected young people during the years when even Merle Haggard was singing songs bashing “longhairs.”

Johnny Cash’s popularity peaked with two live albums recorded in Folsom and San Quentin prisons. In San Quentin, he did a song he wrote called San Quentin, where he sang, to loud cheers, “San Quentin, I hate every inch of you. May all the world regret you did no good.” I am moved by the respect he showed the people in those prisons.

“Love with claws”

There was another live record that he recorded at about the same time—Live at Madison Square Garden in New York, December 1969. The height of the Vietnam War. Cash talked about that war—in itself a kind of gutsy thing for a country singer. And what he said was striking.

He talked about how he was often asked what he thought about the war. He had visited Vietnam about a year earlier and performed for the troops. His interviewer asked, “So that makes you a hawk?” And the crowd cheered. But Cash said, “No, that don’t make me a hawk.” But “when you watch the helicopter bring in the wounded and sing to them and try to encourage them so they can be healed enough to go home, it might make you a dove with claws.” Then he launched into a popular anti-war folksong, “Last Night I Had the Strangest Dream,” about putting an end to war.

I’m not sure what Cash meant by “dove with claws.” Since he sang an antiwar song, I want to say that he believed tenaciously in peace. That phrase has stayed with me, though, “a dove with claws.” I’ve adapted it for my sermon today—titled “Love with Claws.” I use that phrase, “love with claws,” as a kind of definition for “justice.” Justice, I want to say, can be understood as “love with claws.” Or, as Martin Luther King said, quoted on the front of our bulletin today: “Justice is love correcting that which revolts against love.” I will be interested if you think this makes sense when I am done…. Continue reading “What is justice? Love with claws”

The left/right schema must go: The task of moral political analysis

Ted Grimsrud—February 7, 2017

We in the United States enter into uncharted waters in these early days of the Trump regime. It seems clear that in the months and years to come, the United States will be the location of political strive of an intensity not seen for a long time within the boundaries of our nation. The kinds of conflictual social struggles that most of us have only observed from a distance are almost certain to become very close to hand.

I believe it is important to note a couple of qualifications to the generalizations I made in the above paragraph. For people of color in the US, and members of other vulnerable groups, the United States has not been a place of comfort and tranquility. We don’t know what kinds of suffering will emerge as a result of the takeover of the federal and most state governments in all their branches by anti-democratic reactionary forces. However, we do well to keep these sufferings in perspective given our nation’s legacies of the intense violence visited on indigenous peoples, on imported slaves, and on sexual minorities—among others. For those still today who have lived with the consequences of such violence over generations, the word to we frightened middle class mostly white folks could legitimately be “welcome to our world.”

Likewise, an awareness of political turmoil around the world over the past 125 years reminds us that for many areas of the world that have suffered from interventions from the American Empire, such turmoil has been fostered by the projection of American force. The words from such locations to us might also appropriately be “welcome to our world.”

However, even as we don’t magnify our own sense of uncertainty and anxiety with claims for their unprecedented significance, it should be cold comfort to those who already know the dynamics of vicious prejudice, authoritarian governance, economic dislocation, and environmental degradation. That’s because they will also likely have their suffering enhanced in the days to come. The Trumpian agenda surely will not be tempered by compassion for the historical sufferings of the vulnerable.

The left/right analytical framework

It seems to me that one important element of resistance for all of us is to think carefully about how to frame our political dynamics. One framework that has become conventional wisdom is to think in terms of a left/right spectrum. Some are saying that after eight years of a leftist government with the Obama administration (admittedly greatly constrained by the legislative power of the right) we are moving to a rightest government with Trump. One’s response to Trump, et al, is said to reveal where one stands on the left/right spectrum. Continue reading “The left/right schema must go: The task of moral political analysis”

What would Jesus say about the Russians?

Ted Grimsrud—January 29, 2017

“What would Jesus say?” is a common questions Christians ask when they are in the midst of discerning what they themselves should say or do. For it to be a helpful question, I think we do better to think in terms of Jesus’s general moral outlook more than looking for specific verses to apply directly to our time.

I’m not sure I would say that people of good will (not only professing Christians) must ask this question—but I think it would almost always serve us well. And, clearly, if we draw from Jesus’s general moral outlook, we retain a large measure of responsibility to think and reason and act for ourselves. Jesus’s moral outlook gives us guidance but it does not give us a direct blueprint.

Currently, in the United States, we are badly in need of careful moral discernment. We are badly in deed of a moral outlook that gives us a stable set of moral convictions that will resist our tendency to look for guidance that justifies our own actions or simply allows us to condemn our enemies because they are our enemies. That is, we are in need of moral guidance that demands that whatever criteria for morality we use apply equally to ourselves as they do to our opponents.

It is risky right now to appeal to Jesus because so many people in power present themselves as “Christians” while acting and speaking in ways that are very much in tension with the actual life and teaching of Jesus. So, to evoke Jesus makes one vulnerable to be dismissed as simply another pious-sounding hypocrite. At the same time, appealing to Jesus’s actual moral outlook might provide a basis for challenging the approaches of self-professing Christians. That is what I hope to do with this blog post.

Continue reading “What would Jesus say about the Russians?”

Ten books for radical Christians: Faithful living in the Trump era, part 6

Ted Grimsrud—December 14, 2016

One of my responses shortly after Trump’s election was to think about a reading list of books I have found helpful as I seek to understand how my Christian faith might help me understand and respond to this new phase in American history. My thought in sharing this list is not that I am providing any definitive guidance. As with my previous post on helpful news sites, here I am also hoping to stimulate sharing. What is a book (or few) that you think would be helpful for these times?

This is a fairly random list. I thought about it just long enough to come up with ten titles I feel good about. In time, with more thought, I would formulate a much different list. My hope though, is simply to get some ideas out there. I am confident that each of these books is worth paying attention to. I don’t actually think they are the ten best or most important books. If we’re serious about understanding our situation, along with listening to each other, along with keeping up with the news and analysis, we will need to read more than ten books.

As a rule, these books are quite readable and written for educated non-specialists. A few are overtly theological; the others provide useful awareness of our setting where Christians are trying to live out our theology.

(1) Walter Wink. Engaging the Powers: Discernment and Resistance in an Age of Domination. Fortress Press, 1992.

This remarkable book still stands as a unique multi-disciplinary effort. A quarter of a century after its publication, it remains the best example of the fruitful combining of biblical theology, social analysis, and transformative activism I’ve ever seen. Wink writes out of a passion for nonviolent social transformation that he expressed through his own activism. He understands the social dynamics of the “domination system” within an America enslaved to the myth of “redemptive violence” (Wink coined both of these quoted terms in this book). Like precious few other thinkers, Wink combined a commitment to social transformation (and a profound structural analysis) with an awareness of the need for a vital personal spirituality. Though a long book, Engaging the Powers is quite readable, and it’s inspirational. It’s scholarly and practical at the same time.

(2) Walter Brueggemann. The Prophetic Imagination, 2nd ed. Fortress Press, 2001 [original edition 1978].

Brueggmann is a wonder, an extraordinarily prolific writer still going strong well into his ninth decade of life. Probably his main importance for this list is that like no other writer, he gives us message of the political radicalism of the Old Testament as a necessary resource for present-day Christians (and all other people of good will). Just about any of his books is worth reading for this message. I cite this older volume (the second edition adds little to the first) as a basic introduction to a prophetic reading of the Bible. One of his key insights (if a bit simplistic) is the distinction in biblical writing between the “prophetic consciousness” and the “royal consciousness.” The Bible itself contains a debate between these two viewpoints, though in the life and message of Jesus it ultimately sides decisively with the prophetic—a crucial insight to keep in mind in our day.

Continue reading “Ten books for radical Christians: Faithful living in the Trump era, part 6”

On being informed: Faithful living in the Trump era, part 5

Ted Grimsrud—December 12, 2016

My approach to gathering news and information about the world is pretty haphazard. I have not put much time into self-consciously seeking out the best sources. More, I notice some sources that I find helpful and connect with them. In this post, I will simply list what I find helpful. I invite anyone who has additional ideas to share them in the comments.

I don’t offer this out of any sense of expertise on my part. But it is possible there are some sources here that might be new to a few people. In these times, we need to share our thoughts and resources and not worry too much about whether we are profound enough. What I offer here is simply a response to my wife Kathleen’s question: How do you stay informed?

I’m far from being a news junkie. I have pretty much eliminated television and radio from my life. Partly, I find those media to be more conducive to manipulating the watcher/listener.

I used to read corporate media regularly—Time or Newsweek, New York Times, Washington Post. And longer ago I listened to NPR. But I increasingly felt like I was being shaped by them in ways I didn’t like, even if I partook of them critically. I was reminded of this during the primaries this year when I read the Post a lot. I found the pro-Clinton bias quite subtle but relentless—and off-putting.

Now, I try to stay aware with a wide mix of written sources, mostly accessed randomly.For starters, though, to help my convictional framework, I read as much as I can from a core group of thinkers who I trust. This is partly for their information, but maybe even more to reinforce a sense of critical awareness. Some of the key people for me are Noam Chomsky, Naomi Klein, and Cornel West. I greatly respect their values, their knowledge and intelligence, and the breadth of their visions for human wellbeing.

I get emails from numerous sources that I scan over quickly. And I do mean “scan.” I never spend more than a few seconds on an email except when, occasionally, I seem something I want to read more thoroughly. Not very sophisticated, but I find this approach useful.

As I put this list together, I realized that I don’t know of any sites from an overt faith perspective other than Tikkun. I would love to learn of more….

Twenty-five informative sites: Continue reading “On being informed: Faithful living in the Trump era, part 5”

The book of Revelation on living in Empire: Christian faith in the Trump era, part 4

Ted Grimsrud—December 11, 2016

The book of Revelation does not have a positive reputation these days. For many Christians it is seen as hopelessly complicated and obscure. In my opinion, it is indeed the case that understanding Revelation is difficult. I have been studying it pretty intensively, off and on, for about 40 years now. I believe I have to a large degree figured Revelation out, and I am trying to find clear and accessible ways to explain what I have figured out. But it is not a quick and easy task (one place I presented my ideas was in my congregation, where I preached a series of sermons on Revelation—I summarized the main points in some blog posts; it took 18 to cover all the points I had to make, and I felt as if I only scratched the surface). Revelation does not fit on a bumper sticker!

Perhaps, though, part of what makes Revelation potentially very useful for peacemakers today is precisely its complexity. But even with that complexity, I think some of the useful insights we can gain from Revelation are not obscure or inaccessible. If we are to learn from Revelation about how better to live faithfully in our troubled times what might be some of the key lessons? I’m at work on a book-length commentary on Revelation that will focus on this question. Here are some summary points:

(1) Keeping the way of Jesus central

Revelation offers the Bible’s most extended and profound critique of the dynamics of empires and their effects on people of faith. This critique remains important. However, we should also remember that the central concerns for the book are the health and faithfulness of the communities of Jesus’s followers. John critiques Rome in order to help his Christian readers to “follow the Lamb wherever he goes” (14:4).

This ordering of priorities remains important. I don’t think the lesson is so much that we should focus only internally on the life of the institutional church while remaining indifferent toward our broader social situation. More so, I think the point for us is the reminder that in all areas of our lives, the way of Jesus remains our guide. We always run the risk of marginalizing that approach to life—sometimes with a preoccupation on the machinations of those “inside the beltway.” However, whatever healing is to come for our world and whatever the role of the “great nations” in that healing might be, the ultimate bases for healing remains always the message of Jesus—love God and love neighbor. And this way of healing has to be embodied in actual face-to-face relationships even as we also do what we can to further humane public policy on the macro level. This embodiment is why the congregations are so important to John. Continue reading “The book of Revelation on living in Empire: Christian faith in the Trump era, part 4”